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Review: Appearances are deceiving in this week’s releases (Includes first-hand account)

Ammonite (Blu-ray)

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Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

In 1800s England, acclaimed but unrecognized fossil hunter Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) works alone on the rugged Southern coastline. With the days of her famed discoveries behind her, she now searches for common fossils to sell to tourists to support herself and her ailing mother. When a wealthy visitor entrusts Mary with the care of his wife Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan), she cannot afford to turn his offer down. Proud and relentlessly passionate about her work, Mary initially clashes with her unwelcome guest, but despite the distance between their social class and personalities, an intense bond begins to develop, compelling the two women to determine the true nature of their relationship.

Writer/director Francis Lee is building a portfolio of films that depicts romantic relationships started under difficult conditions. At first, neither woman is thrilled about the arrangement thrust upon them both by the husband. However, unforeseen circumstances force them closer and push them to confront their growing feelings for each other. As in Lee’s previous picture, the intimacy shared between Mary and Charlotte is raw and authentic. Their first sexual encounter is spontaneous and feverish. The camera captures their need for each other, while not being intrusive or trying to overly romanticize their visceral passion. Winslet and Ronan are beautiful in this movie as they both take on-screen risks with their portrayal of these women’s self-discovery. Their May-December romance adheres to the formula with fervent attraction followed by a cooling off period caused by one person trying to change the other. Both actresses authentically depict their characters’ transition from melancholy to joy, while never betraying their core personalities. Their performances carry the film and Lee’s apt avoidance of any heavy-handedness makes it an engaging experience.

Special features include: making-of featurette. (Universal Pictures Home Entertainment)

Freaky (Blu-ray, DVD & Digital copy)

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Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

High school senior Millie (Kathryn Newton) is just trying to survive being the unpopular kid when she becomes The Butcher’s (Vince Vaughn) next target. Their fateful encounter gets twisted and they wake up in each other’s bodies. Now looking like a towering psychopath, Millie learns she only has 24 hours to reverse the curse and get her body back before the switch becomes permanent and she’s trapped in the form of a middle-aged maniac forever. With some help from her friends — ultra-woke Nyla (Celeste O’Connor), ultra-fabulous Joshua (Misha Osherovich) and her crush Booker (Uriah Shelton) — Millie races against the clock to reverse the curse, while The Butcher discovers that having a female teen body is the perfect cover for a little Homecoming killing spree.

This film follows a recent trend of turning classic family-friendly comedies into horror nightmares. In this twisted version of Freaky Friday, instead of a teen switching places with a parent she adopts the face of a man wanted for multiple, grisly murders. Though a teenage girl going on a killing spree isn’t a wholly new concept, watching a relatively large, intimidating man perform a school cheer is more unique. Possessed Millie adopts a new look and sheds her sweet, timid personality for a racier version of herself that doesn’t tolerate rude behaviour from surrounding men. Conversely, Vaughn meets the challenge of adopting the mannerisms of a stereotypical female teen, convincingly portraying a girl trapped in an adult man’s body. More amusingly, they take the “it’s what’s inside that counts” to its fullest extent, creating some strange bonding moments between the teens.

Special features include: commentary by co-writer/director Christopher Landon; deleted scenes; “Split Personalities: Millie vs. The Butcher”; “Crafting the Kills”; “Christopher Landon’s Brand of Horror”; and “Final Girl Reframed.” (Universal Pictures Home Entertainment)

Helter Skelter: An American Myth (DVD)

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Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

Before the Menendez brothers, O.J. Simpson and Ted Bundy, Charles Manson‘s name loomed large in modern stories of murder and crime. More than 50 years have passed since Manson and his devoted followers committed their horrific acts, yet the public remains in the dark about the Manson family and their journey into the abyss. How has this legendary story — the stuff of sensational headlines, criminal culture and lore — been left unexplored? In the most comprehensive telling of the Manson family saga in a visual medium, the film features never-before-accessed interviews with former family members and journalists first on the scene and in the courtroom.

This six-episode docuseries recounts Manson’s life from his childhood to murderous adulthood. Via interviews with surviving members of Manson’s cult and journalists who covered the case, audiences are provided one of the most comprehensive overviews of the incidents that would lead to multiple murders and sentences of life in prison. While it’s widely known Manson attracted followers with his charm and good looks, tracing his slow but effective manipulation of his followers using techniques he learned from books and seminars further paints the picture of a calculated monster. Though their lifestyle was definitely unconventional, before things went bad it’s almost possible to see why these young people chose this co-dependent community. The series is capitalizing on audience’s revived fascination with serial killers, but it offers information that helps explain why these people would have committed such horrific crimes for Manson. The only significant flaw is starting the story near the end, then repeating similar information later in the series.

There are no special features. (Warner Bros. Home Entertainment)

Six by Sondheim (Blu-ray)

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Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

From award-winning director and frequent Sondheim collaborator James Lapine, the film is an intimate and candid look at the life and art of legendary composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who redefined musical theater through such works as Company, Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park with George. Told primarily in Sondheim’s own words from dozens of interviews spanning decades, the film is a highly personal profile of a great American artist as revealed through the creation and performance of six of his songs. It features rarely seen archival performance footage and original staged productions — created exclusively for this film — with stars including Audra McDonald, Darren Criss, America Ferrera and more.

Though Sondheim’s name may not be widely familiar to people, most are likely acquainted with at least one of his songs. The presentation is distinctive as choreographed enactments of six of his most popular tunes are interwoven throughout the film. The performances are professional and lively, imbuing viewers with the essence of these songs, while also giving unfamiliar viewers a taste of the celebrated music. Meanwhile, Sondheim is the primary narrator, eloquently recounting his career and moments that led to his greatest hits. Luckily, Sondheim is quite the character and storyteller, making the picture — when combined with the stage acts — unexpectedly entertaining.

There are no special features. (Warner Bros. Home Entertainment)

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Written By

Sarah Gopaul is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for film news, a member of the Online Film Critics Society and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer-approved critic.

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